Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Last year, the first run of “Ang Huling El Bimbo” was met with sold out shows and demands for more. The musical returns with new cast members and additional scenes, supposedly to tighten the narrative and allow the show to pack more punch than the last time. The story remains the same: a tragedy brings together three men who have been estranged for 20 years — government worker Emman, hotshot director Hector, and businessman Anthony — and takes us back to their college years when they used to be the best of friends, up until the moment that changed their lives forever.
The most captivating thing about “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is its music. Saying that feels like pointing out the obvious, especially since the jukebox musical is driven by the songs of what many consider the greatest Filipino rock band of all time. But by recontextualizing songs in ways you wouldn’t expect, musical director Myke Salomon gives Eraserheads’ songs new meaning and brings them to life in refreshing ways.
Who would have thought that “Pare Ko” and “Cutterpillow” would work as ROTC marching songs (which, paired with fantastic choreo, make up one of our favorite scenes)? Or that “Shirley” could stand for a concerned aunt’s playful warnings about the perils of young love? Or even that “Ligaya” could both be sung by a heartbroken teen begging her boyfriend to stay and a mother penning a poignant letter to her daughter? Salomon expertly weaves over 30 Eraserheads songs into the story that it almost feels like you’re listening to them for the first time.
Salomon’s strength doesn’t just lie in his ability to give new life to old songs, but rather in his skill at choosing the right song for the right moment. This was most evident in the choice to assign “With A Smile” as the young trio’s graduation song. The scene itself is heartbreaking for a number of reasons, but hearing the tune that probably became the grad song of every other Filipino kid born after 1994 brings back bittersweet memories of that time we too were at the cusp of youth and adulthood.
Die-hard Eraserheads fans will have a blast in the first act keeping their eyes and ears wide open for their favorite songs from the ‘90s. In fact, don’t be surprised if your seatmates suddenly perk up in their seats with glee. This, coupled with spot-on costume design by Marlon Rivera and some pretty jaw-dropping set pieces, is enough to make your heart ache with nostalgia for the ‘90s.
The second most captivating thing about “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is the performances. At the gala night, Gian Magdangal, OJ Mariano, and Jon Santos played the world-weary present day trio, while Bibo Reyes, Boo Gabunada, and new cast member Phi Palmos played the younger versions of Hector, Emman, and Anthony respectively — their magnetic performances capturing the almost manic energy of college kids dreaming about bright futures, courting girls, and goofing around.
Another new addition to the cast is Gab Pangilinan who, playing young Joy, the barkada’s honorary fourth member, is a scene-stealer. Their energies are so in sync as four long-time friends, which made it even more heartbreaking to see them fall down a dark and sometimes confusing road of guilt, shame, and denial following an incident that completely changes the show’s tone by the end of the first act.
The show’s themes are clear — wide-eyed idealism may not be enough to carry you through tragedy and the challenges of adulthood; maybe the best way to get through it all is with a little help from your friends; not everyone who is dealt a bad hand in life is a bad person. However, not all narrative choices made to reach these do justice to all the characters, especially Joy, the sole female lead. I had high hopes for her character’s development, yet Joy suffers the same fate as many female characters have before, and I was left wanting more. In 2019, we’re still left hoping female characters can be defined by anything other than their sexuality, their roles as mothers, and their relationships with men.
Maybe in attempting such a massive feat as pulling off a musical of this scale, using pre-existing music and lyrics and turning them into a cohesive narrative, it’s easy for a few things to get lost in the fray. Whether or not you agree with the way the story is told, a couple of things stand true for “Ang Huling El Bimbo”: it’s ‘90s nostalgia done well with captivating performances all around.
“Ang Huling El Bimbo” has 10 remaining shows this April, running every Thursday to Sunday at 8 p.m., with matinees every Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m., until April 14. The show is staged at the Newport Performing Arts Theater of Resorts World Manila. Tickets are available at Resorts World Manila’s Box Office and at all TicketWorld outlets.